Loving JAWS: Pop Culture & Conservation

Posted on June 25, 2012
Written by: Samantha Whitcraft

467123_420266611323142_2049247911_o.jpg“I couldn't write ‘Jaws’ today. The extensive new knowledge of sharks would make it impossible for me to create, in good conscience, a villain of the magnitude and malignity of the original.” - Peter Benchley, Author of JAWS

I love everything about JAWS –- the book, the movie, and the author –- but as a conservation biologist I used to feel guilty about my secret feelings. After all, isn’t it the film credited with demonizing sharks in popular culture? Well, yes but it is also responsible for inspiring an entire generation of marine biologists, conservationists, and advocates who became fascinated by and even obsessed with sharks. For decades, at marine science conferences, in the evenings after the day’s serious science was presented and discussed, we’d meet to share field stories and inevitably after a few beers the truth would come out – they all secretly loved JAWS too! Everyone had a favorite character with Quint, the crazed shark hunter, being the most common, ironically. Chalk that up to a great story and amazing acting. Soon the volley of favorite film quotes would start and end with “You’re going to need a bigger boat!”  -- the ultimate comic relief after the audience jumps out of their seats having finally seen the massive shark. As innovative filmmaker Joe Romeiro says “When I saw JAWS, everyone I knew was rooting for the shark!”

462594_420307477985722_947416227_o.jpgWhen JAWS was released and became the first-ever Hollywood ‘block-buster’ (because there were lines around the block to buy tickets for a film for the very first time in movie history), I was just a kid, and because I spent my summers body-surfing the waves of the Jersey shore, my mother wisely forbade me to see the film. So when I finally saw it as a teenager, I was still young enough to suspend belief about a giant plastic shark and yet old enough not to let it scare me away from my love, the ocean. As I sat inches from the screen watching the adventure story unfold, I immediately recognized the common themes with Moby Dick and reveled in it while finding the geeky-scientist-hero, Hooper, enthralling. That’s it I thought, THAT is what I want to do; I want to be someone who understands the ocean and its inhabitants. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that I realized a wonderful similarity between my introduction to sharks and Hooper’s as described in the film. When Ellen Brody asks him if he likes sharks, he replies, “Yeah, I love them. When I was twelve years old my father got me this boat. And I went fishing off of Cape Cod, and I hooked a scup and as I was reeling it in I hooked a four and a half foot baby thrasher shark. Who proceeded to eat my boat.” I can relate. During my first field season in Hawaii, a curious juvenile tiger shark tried to eat the stern of my kayak while I was still in it. And for me too, thus the love affair began.

473970_420296634653473_2028323435_o.jpgLater I realized that it was because of his love of sharks that Hooper was trying to help the community of Amity Island understand sharks…something I clearly relate to now. In fact, as a part of the Shark Savers’ team, I was honored to be asked to help launch ‘Summer for the Sharks’ as the lead-up to JawsFest – The Tribute, on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard was Amity in the film so to give shark conservation presentations to schools and community groups there was like coming home. I met residents who had been extras in the film and local shark advocates who had also come to love their sharks. And the amazing thing about it all was that it made sense – combining shark conservation and the first, ultimate shark film works. We spoke about the key characters in the film and what they had come to represent to me and to so many others in the conservation community. Where Brody had once represented our fear of sharks, we now promote understanding; where Hooper represented the pure science of sharks, we now apply conservation for protecting them; and where Quint represented a pure hatred of sharks, we now respect them for their vital role in our oceans’ ecosystems.

Shark Savers will return to ‘Amity’ from August 9-12, 2012 for JawsFest – the Tribute and we look forward to continuing to work with the community to make Martha’s Vineyard synonymous with not only the film ‘Jaws’ but with its new legacy…a legacy of combining the best of shark pop-culture with the power of conservation and education.

“We are not afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters…” - E.O. Wilson, Sociobiologist



Excerpts from this article are published in the July 2012 issue of Scuba Diving Magazine. A minor correction to that version: Samantha Whitcraft returned to Martha’s Vineyard in March 2012 but did not attend the first JawsFest in 2005.


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